Franky Morbidelli drew first blood at the Losail International Circuit as the Petronas rider dominated MotoGP free practice from Aleix Espargaro and Jack Miller.
The Italian spent the majority of the 45-minute session firmly in contention as he battled both factory Yamaha riders before holding off a rapid attack from Espargaro and Ducati’s Miller with an impressive 1’54.921.
MotoGP fired into action at Doha for the first free practice of 2021 as all 22 prototype bikes hit the 5.4km track en-masse. With five days of testing already completed at the desert location, the opening 45-minutes was less about familiarisation and more concerned with fine-tuning as the riders looked towards Sunday’s 22-lap race.
As the green flag released, the entire pack immediately got down to work, with Luca Marini heading out for his first competitive session in the premier-class alongside brother Valentino Rossi. The Ducati rookie was joined by fellow Bologna newcomers Enea Bastianini and Jorge Martin, with Lorenzo Savadori also starting his debut full-time season for Aprilia.
Factory Ducati man Miller started the weekend as he had ended pre-season testing, at the top of the times, before Aleix Espargaro and the Yamaha duo of Maverick Vińales and Fabio Quartararo demoted him to fourth. Johann Zarco becoming the first faller of 2021, as he lost his Pramac Ducati at turn four on his second lap.
The battle for pace warmed up as the riders reacquainted themselves with the Losail layout, Morbidelli setting the benchmark after 10 minutes on track - a 1’55.518 - from fellow VR46 graduate Pecco Bagnaia before Yamaha frontrunner Vińales looked to better. The Yamaha clash continued as Morbidelli and Vińales vied for position before the pack returned to the pits.
Miller, currently sitting sixth in the standings, found the limit, and the gravel, at turn four as the session hit the half-way point, with an off-line Pol Espargaro hitting the deck at turn six one lap later, thanks in part to the strong winds endured.
The closing 15-minutes found Morbidelli still holding fast in P1, the Italian setting repeatedly impressive laps as he maintained control from Vińales and Bagnaia with the elder Espargaro, Rossi and Quartararo claiming the top-six. 1’55.092 now the time to beat.
After a difficult test, the KTM duo of Miguel Oliveira and Brad Binder seemed to be finding their feet as the race weekend got underway, sitting eighth and 10th respectively, with the South African sandwiched between the Suzuki pairing of Alex Rins and 2020 champ Joan Mir.
The final runs saw Rins the first to advance, claiming fourth on his 15th lap as the standings began to shuffle. Espargaro pushing his Aprilia into second, just 0.015 shy of the Petronas before exceeding his rival to take the top-spot on the cusp of a 1’55.
Morbidelli, however, was far from done and he countered again to secure the first 1’54 effort of the weekend just as Miller regrouped for third. Bastianini falling in the first corner as the chequered flag prepared to fly.
The final efforts left the top-three clear of competition with Quartararo’s late-charge finding fourth from Mir, Vińales and Rins. Bagnaia concluded his first session in factory colours eighth and neatly ahead of mentor Rossi as Oliveira claimed top-KTM honours in 10th.
Alex Marquez sat 11th from teammate Takaaki Nakagami with Zarco, Repsol’s continuing replacement-rider Stefan Bradl and new recruit Espargaro rounding out the top-15. Binder finished 16th ahead of the Avintia pairing of Marini and Bastianini with Danilo Petrucci, Martin, Savadori and Iker Lecuona completing the times.